Why Failure is So Traumatic and What to do About It

Image for post
Image for post

Our society cherishes success. Success defines the person, the organization, the culture. It is a clear goal for every initiative that has an outcome. Success is defined as much by tangible achievement of a predefined goal as it is by its polar opposite, failure. The commonly held view is that failure is to be avoided because success is to be achieved, and both cannot coexist.

We are exposed to the concept of failure as children in families, and later in elementary school. Generations of young people have lived in fear of failing tests, subjects, grades not making the athletic team or being popular. This early experience with failure obviously colors our perception of the concept with great negativity. Defined in this way, failure is simply the opposite of success, a notion that sets the stage for the role of failure and its interpretation throughout one’s life. Young people learn that nothing but perfection will suffice, and failure later impacts our professional efforts, view of accomplishment, and sense of ourselves being imperfect.

In the early 19th Century, the term failure was commonly used to describe a “breaking in business,” or going broke or bankrupt. Over time, this purely commercial definition evolved to pertain to personal deficiency, as well as tangible accomplishment or moral behavior. How did this change occur? How did one’s financial inadequacy morph into personal inadequacy? Sandler, in his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, argues that, in part, this evolution reflects the interpretation of the American dream in 19thCentury America. He points out that the failures among us “embody the American fear that our fondest hopes and our worst nightmares may be one and the same….the [American] dream that equates freedom with success…could neither exist nor endure without failure.” We need failure, “the word and the person…to sort out our own defeats and dreams.” Put in contemporary Darwinian contrast, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

A moment’s reflection will lead one to appreciate how important and pervasive failure is in the normal course of one’s personal and professional life. In fact, among some highly specialized goal-oriented professions, failure is a dominant and expected outcome. In the pharmaceutical industry, the clinical failure rate for drugs entering phase II testing was reported to be 81% for 50 illustrative compounds that entered clinical testing in 1993–2004. Major baseball league batters fail to hit the ball 75% of the time (the overall major league baseball batting average for 2016 was 0.253 ). Failure is, of course, part of the scientific method. All well designed experiments are framed in terms of the null hypothesis, which more often turns out to hold rather than its alternate. No matter how insightful an investigator is believed to have been in retrospect, the scientific approach is one of informed trial and error in the best of circumstances, and, therefore, invariably subject to the play of chance

According to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, the fear of failure is directly linked to your self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person. As a result, Covington found that students will put themselves through unbelievable psychological machinations in order to avoid failure and maintain the sense that they are worthy — which, as all of us who have ever dealt with the fear of failure know, can have long-term consequences.

Fortunately, the research also provides tips for educators to help students deal with feelings of failure — and help them to fulfill their true potential.

How Failure Creates Problems for Us

1. Failure can make the same goal seem less attainable. In one study, people kicked an American football over a goalpost in an unmarked field and then estimated how far and high the goalpost was. People who failed estimated the goalpost as being further away and higher than those who had succeeded. In other words, failure automatically distorts your perceptions of your goals and makes them seem more unattainable. Note the word distort — your goals are just as attainable as they were before you failed; it is only your perceptions that changed. You can choose to ignore these new perceptions, and you should. Indeed, changing how you view your goals is not the only way in which failure distorts your perceptions.

2. Failure can distort your perceptions of your abilities.Much as it makes your goals seem further out of reach, failure also distorts your perceptions of your actual abilities by making you feel less up to the task. Once you fail, you are likely to assess your skills, intelligence, and capabilities incorrectly and see them as significantly weaker than they actually are. Knowing this and correcting for it in your mind is important because by making you devalue your abilities.

3. Failure can make you believe you’re helpless. One of the most common and strongest feelings people have after failing is helplessness. Failure causes an emotional wound. Your mind responds to this wound by trying to get you to give up so it doesn’t get wounded again — and its best way of getting you to give up is to make you feel helpless. By making you feel as if there is nothing you can do to succeed, your mind might avoid future failures but you will be robbed of successes as well — which is why you shouldn’t always listen to your feelings. But that is not the only way your mind can work against you.

4. A single failure experience can create an unconscious”fear of failure.” Some people are convinced they have a “fear of success.” They don’t — they have a fear of failure. The problem with most fears of failure is they are unconscious, which means you’re not actually dealing with whether the fear is real, reasonable, or likely. Which then means you’re also not addressing how to increase your likelihood of success; you’re just trying to avoid feeling bad if you fail. This unconscious focus on avoiding future failure rather than securing future success leads people to act out.

5. Fear of failure often leads to unconscious self-sabotaging.One of the most common ways people try to buffer themselves against the pain of future failure is by self-handicapping — creating excuses and situations that can justify why they failed, like going to a party the night before an exam and claiming they were tired or hung over; developing psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches that made it hard to concentrate; or magnifying a small “crisis,” such as the need to spend two hours on the phone with an upset friend, to justify why they were unable to prepare for a jobinterview. These kinds of behaviors often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because they sabotage your efforts and increase your likelihood of failure.

6. Fear of failure can be transmitted from parentsto children.Studies show that parents who have a fear of failure can unwittingly transmit it to their children by reacting harshly or withdrawing emotionally when their children fail — thus conveying to them, often unconsciously, that failure is unacceptable. This, of course, raises the stakes for their children and makes them more likely to develop a fear of failure of their own.

7. The pressure to succeed increases performance anxietyand causes choking.When a golfer misses a crucial easy putt, a bowler gutters the last ball, or a trained singer totally misses the power note at the end of an audition song, it is because performance pressure caused them to choke. Choking happens when the pressure to succeed makes you overthink something your brain already knows how to do. As a result, you add an unnecessary “correction” that throws your brain off and screws everything up.

Image for post
Image for post

The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame

John Atkinson posits a link between the two basic achievement motives, need for achievement and fear of failure, and specific emotions. Atkinson portrayed need for achievement as “the capacity to feel pride in accomplishment” and fear of failure as “the capacity or propensity to experience shame upon failure.”

Shame is a painful emotion, and thus, it is not surprising that individuals high in fear of failure orient to and seek to avoid failure in achievement situations. Indeed, when possible, such individuals seek to select themselves out of achievement situations in the first place. Ironic- ally, and poignantly, in so doing, those high in fear of failure keep themselves from the mistakes and failures that many achievement motivation theorists view as the grist for the mill of competence development.

In essence, the avoidance of mistakes and failures stunts the growth and maturation of persons high in fear of failure, which, over time, merely leads to more mistakes and failures. As such, the avoidance of failure is likely to be a self-perpetuating process in that the very process of avoiding failure is likely to serve a role in maintaining and exacerbating the tendency to avoid failure.

The science of failure: We can’t admit we’re wrong

It always helps to add some context about the subconscious biases we have in our heads about failure. Here is a few:

We don’t take credit for our failures. We tend to take credit for our successes, attributing them to internal factors such as how much effort we put in, the skills we have or our past experience. Failure, on the other hand, is something we don’t like to admit to. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task.

Failure makes us less generous.After succeeding at a task, the positive reinforcement makes us more likely to be more generous and helpful to others. If we fail at a task first, however, we’re less likely to want to help others, and less generous with our time and money.

We literally can’t admit that we’re wrong. In Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz explains the problem of error blindness: “… the sentence ‘I am wrong’ describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say ‘I was wrong.’” So even for those of us who try hard to admit our mistakes, it’s almost impossible for us to do so, at least in the present: “… we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.”

How to Deal with Failure

The following is a collection of ideas from research and practices that can help

1. Become mindful of Your self-talk and argue back. The first step in addressing any problem is identifying it. So the first thing you need to do to change your mindset is to identify when you are slipping into a fixed mentality. For example, a middle-aged writer might get a rejection for the umpteenth time and think, “Maybe I’m too old to start a writing career.” But if I remind myself that this is my fixed mindset talking, I could argue back by stating, “Then again, you’re never too old to learn a new skill,” or “Lots of successful writers started their career at my age or even later.”

2. Focus on the process, not the outcome. When you get rejected, you may just want to throw your hands up and say, “I just wasted all of that time for nothing. What’s the point!” But then you can remind yourself that “failure” is just another word for “learning.” Even though the outcome wasn’t what you wanted, you still benefited from the process.

3. Develop a growth mindset. Just learning that your brain can change is enough to rewire your mindset. One study found that teaching children about the brain’s malleable quality led them to adopt a growth mindset in school, boosted their motivation,and made them more resilient to failure. You can do the same thing by googling the term “neuroplasticity.” Or better yet, check out the TED Talk by psychologists Carol Dweck.

4. Focus on the internal reasons for your pursuits. People with a fixed mindset hunger for others’ approval because that’s the only way they can validate their talent. They want to prove their talent, not improve it. But if the main reason you want success is to get others’ approval (or to become rich, which also requires others’ approval), you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. So when the inevitable sting of rejection strikes, remind yourself that you do what you do, first and foremost, because you love it. Because you are compelled to do it.

5. Praise others for their effort not just their accomplishments. In addition to changing your own mindset, consider paying it forward and changing the mindset of those around you. When a child brings home straight A’s and her parents say, “Wow, you must be a genius,” they are unknowingly encouraging her to adopt a fixed mindset. Instead, if the parents were to say, “Wow, you must have worked really hard in your classes,” they would be encouraging a growth mindset. Research shows that praising children for their effort (not their inherent talent) helps them cope with future failure and improves their performance. So the next time you praise someone for their success — be it a child or adult — highlight their effort, not their talent.

6. View decisions as experiments. Recognizing our mistakes is almost impossible, according to Kathryn Schulz. Since it’s so common for us to brush aside or forget our failures, a better way to learn from when we go wrong might be this approach from Zen Habits author, Leo Babauta: “See decisions not as final choices, but experiments.The anxiety (and paralysis) comes when people are worried about making the perfect choice. And worried about making the wrong choice. Those are two outcomes that aren’t necessary to make a decision, because if we conduct an experiment, we’re just trying to see what happens.”

7. Don’t make it personal. Separate the failure from your identity. Just because you haven’t found a successful way of doing something (yet) doesn’t mean you are a failure. These are completely separate thoughts, yet many of us blur the lines between them. Personalizing failure can wreak havoc on our self-esteem and confidence.

8. Stop dwelling on it. Obsessing over your failure will not change the outcome. In fact, it will only intensify the outcome, trapping you in an emotional doom-loop that disables you from moving on. You cannot change the past, but you can shape your future. The faster you take a positive step forward, the quicker you can leave these debilitating, monopolizing thoughts behind. Don Shula is the winningest coach in the NFL, holding the record for most career wins (including two Super Bowl victories) and the only perfect season in NFL history had a “24-hour rule,” a policy of looking forward instead of dwelling on the past. The coach allowed himself, his staff and his players 24 hours to celebrate a victory or brood over a defeat. During those 24 hours, Shula encouraged them to feel their emotions of success or failure as deeply as they could. The next day, it was time to put it behind them and focus their energy on preparing for their next challenge. His philosophy was that if you keep your failures and victories in perspective, you’ll do better in the long run.

9. Release the need for approval of others. Often our fear of failure is rooted in our fear of being judged and losing others’ respect and esteem. We easily get influenced (and spooked) by what people say about us. Remember, this is your life, not theirs. What one person considers to be true about you is not necessary the truth about you, and if you give too much power to others’ opinions, it could douse your passion and confidence, undermining your ability to ultimately succeed.

10. Embrace your emotions with mindfulness. Failure is accompanied by a variety of emotions; embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame to name a few. Those feelings are uncomfortable and many people will do anything they can to escape feeling emotional discomfort. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making says you shouldn’t try to slough off feeling bad after failure. Researchers discovered that thinking about your emotions — rather than the failure itself — is most helpful. Allowing yourself to feel bad is motivating. It can help you work harder to find better solutions so that you’ll improve next time. So go ahead embrace your emotions. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and let yourself feel badfor a bit. Label your emotions and allow yourself to experience them.

11. And finally use humor.People cope with failures and stress in life in a variety of ways ranging from distraction to getting social support. But what are the most effective strategies? New research from the University of Kent has revealed that positive reframing, acceptance and humor are the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures. In a paper published by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Dr. Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University’s School of Psychology describe a diary study that found these three strategies to be most effective in dealing with small failures and setbacks, and helping people to keep up their spirits and feel satisfied at the end of the day.

For decades, researchers have explored how humor helps patients relieve stress and heal. Melissa B. Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has taken it one step further, with her researchon how humor helps medical professionals cope with their difficult jobs. She also looked at how humor affects the elderly and how it can increase communication in the workplace and in the classroom. Wanzer has found humor to be beneficial in other areas as well.

“If employees view their managers as humor-oriented, they also view them as more effective,” notes Wanzer. “Employees also reported higher job satisfaction when they worked for someone who was more humor-oriented and used humor effectively and appropriately.” Wanzer and her colleagues found that humor is an effective way to cope with on-the-job stress — again, when used appropriately.

Summary and Conclusions:

It is clear from a review of the research and experts’ perspectives that a few things stand out:

· First, we have created a rigid dichotomy in our society that views and reinforces the belief that success and failure are diametrical opposites, and that failure is the absence of success.

· Second, we have attributed moral and values weighting to success and failure — success is always good and failure is always bad. That has extended into viewing people in unrealistic terms — successful people are better, more desirable, etc, and those who have failed are the opposite.

· Fear of failure has become such a debilitating emotion for many people, that it prevents them from pursuing their dreams or ideas.

· Shame has also become a debilitating emotion for many people when they fail, believing that the failure means they are a failure.

Having said all that, there are some positive and practical strategies we can employ in thinking about, and dealing with failure in our lives and society.

Be sure to read my latest book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available on Amazon and Barnes and Nobe in paperback and Kindle form.

Image for post
Image for post

Written by

Executive Coach/Author/Professional Speaker. President, Ray Williams Associates

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store